Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Why Art Matters

The purest feeling I know is the delirious awe I feel for the artists I love. It’s pervasive, it affects every level of my being. There’s the sheer pleasure of this sublime paragraph or that gorgeous melody; physical pleasure, carnal pleasure in that beauty. Then there’s the sense of connection, so many things fusing together in the near dissonance of a Beethoven late quartet, in the comic desperation of Kafka’s hunger artist: my heritage, some deep resonant echo of the Judaism that illuminated so many generations of my family deep into their historical roots in northern Europe. The divinity of some art pierces all the layers of deracination and assimilated indifference. Maybe it’s just that you feel something greater than the forces you understand when you stare at a Matisse, when you giggle your way through Calder’s circus or stroll quietly through Christo’s Gates; when you cry for Jim Tyrone in Moon For the Misbegotten or laugh helplessly at the Marx brothers. There’s a sense of justification, even justice -- so much just seems worth doing when you bask in the stringent Greek sunlight of great art. The same way a bad song or story makes the whole idea of songs or stories seem futile and ridiculous, a masterpiece makes every crazy idea seem worthwhile, worth doing, worth trying. And this despite the fact that the work diminishes you, makes you feel small and puny and inadequate. E.E. Cummings: “This man this artist, this failure… MUST PROCEED.”

But it’s still more, still bigger somehow, that sense of redemption in the early morning cold when the stars are out and the sky is pale with dawn and nothing is moving on the empty street but the light; the first sip of coffee and the clean warm socks fresh from the dryer, the dry rasp of wind on fallen snow; that charge, an electrical charge like the one when you meet her eyes and don’t look away, the jolt of an unexpected touch. It’s a feeling that life itself, short, sad, soon-obliterated, miniscule life is vastly, ecstatically worthwhile, every breath and shiver of it.

You can’t explain this. The art can’t explain it, either. But it lets you see it and feel it, so that no explanations are necessary. All you have to do is listen, or perhaps sing along; or call someone you love and read them an exquisite paragraph, in translation, on the long distance telephone at midnight.

Maybe, by the time you’re finished, they’ll feel it also.

That what art is for.

That may be what the telephone is for, too.

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